When tragedy strikes a school community — whether it’s a death at your child’s school or a loss of life so horrific that it affects us all, like the shootings at Newtown, Connecticut — the prospect of sending kids back to school can be daunting. But it’s an important milestone, because it is essential that children get back into ordinary routines after hearing disturbing and frightening news. Children find comfort in the familiar, and going back to school and any after-school activities helps build healthy, resilient children.
But after an event like a school shooting, some kids might be hesitant about going back to school. Here are some tips for helping kids worried about going back:
Take your cues from your child
Invite your child to tell you how he feels about going back to school. Don’t ask leading questions — “Are you worried about going back to school?” — but do give him an opportunity to express what’s on his mind. Assuming you’ve discussed the shooting, you might ask if he expects to discuss it at school, or whether he expects any school activities relating to it.
Give him ample opportunity to ask questions.
It’s reassuring to children, and helps diminish frightening fantasies, to express what’ they’re worried about. If your child is thinking that his classroom may no longer be — or feel — safe, it’s good to listen to those fears.
Acknowledge his feelings, but remain calm.
You can let your child know that you can understand why he might be uneasy. And then you can have a factual conversation about how rare school shootings are. You can also assure him that when they happen, they are investigated carefully, to identify causes and help prevent it from happening again. It’s confidence-building for kids to know that we learn from negative experiences.
Emphasize school safety
Remind your child that her school is a very safe place, filled with teachers and other adults who love children and have dedicated their lives to helping them. Remind her of the drills and policies already in place to keep students safe.
Give extra reassurance.
Don’t be surprised if your child is unusually clingy or needy, and do be prepared to slow your morning routines and be physically affectionate and comforting.
Listen when they’re not talking
Be on the lookout for nonverbal cues indicating anxiety. The 8-year-old who hasn’t asked you about the event but who has seen the images, and whose sleep and eating habits have changed after the tragedy, may need to have a conversation — even if she isn’t asking in words.
Know who else can help
Teachers and school counselors will be ready to help children with any concerns they might have while they are in school. Encourage your child to talk to them if he is feeling overwhelmed on the first day back or later in the week. Let him know that it’s fine to bring the subject up again to you or anyone else if he has questions or feelings he wants to share later.
Finally, if you think that one of your children has been seriously impacted, please don’t hesitate to reach out to the Child Mind Institute. You can contact us at (212) 308-3118.